Professor Richard Layard, one time ‘Happiness Tsar’, wrote, ‘in every study, family relationships, (and our close private life) are more important than any other single factor in affecting our happiness’.
It’s hard to grow and feel safe and content in the world if our family stories are causing us distress and discomfort. This is especially true for children, and young people when their family is their world. When they are struggling with emotional and behavioural problems or maybe unexplained physical ailments a ‘systemic’ approach can be revealing.
Systemic therapy is relational, that means looking at the spaces in between people and their relationships with others, as opposed to looking inside individuals. Systemic therapists are interested in the ‘systems’ that people belong to, such as our families, school, work places, peers and friendships. Exploring the context of tension, distress and unhappiness can help us illuminate the possible causes.
For example we may find stories of divorce and separation, estrangement, sibling rivalry, family illness and disability, bullying, academic struggles, financial problems, loss and bereavement, or drug and alcohol use Family therapy is about having conversations that can be difficult, exposing, controversial, and upsetting.
But also about reconnecting, understanding, sharing and being surprised. Feeling heard, understood, loved and believed. Explaining your side of a story, hearing family stories that help you understand current struggles and appreciating other people’s point of view. Feeling proud and united, relieved and supported and wondering together how you can move on.
Any therapy involves taking a risk; family therapy provides an invitation to be brave and accept that families may be worried, sad or confused about someone they love. Or maybe family relationships are feeling tense and strained, or they are missing someone who played an important role in your lives.
Established, repaired and revisited relationships give families a rich resource for healing. Family Therapy sessions usually last 90 minutes, and as many family members who are available are welcome. Work would begin by exploring why it had been decided now was the time for family talking and noting individual and family goals to help focus the work. Some family members may be initially reluctant to attend, its important for them to be aware that just be attending they are showing their support. They do not have to contribute verbally if they do not want to – this could be agreed at the beginning of the session. By just turning up they are able to listen to other expressing their views and will usually join in when they feel comfortable and safe within the process.
A genogram or family tree is usually constructed looking at the current family structure and remembering older generations. This provides a map of the family and a cultural context for the current problems. It generates stories, sometimes forgotten, about how positive and negative patterns and traits may have been inherited by the family in the room. This can be a revealing and emotional, with younger people hearing about relations that may have died before they were born and older ones remembering stories that help build to a clearer understanding of the family’s identity. A time-line constructing a chronology of family births and deaths and other family events is also useful. Again, this begins reveals its own narrative, which can help a family begin to plot the life story of a problem.
Family Therapy is always driven by the goals of the family and continual feedback allows the therapist to ensure that the family are having the conversations they want and need to have. Sometimes it may feel useful for family members to meet individually, in couples or sibling groups as part of the therapy.
It is not necessary to meet weekly; sometimes families find one or two sessions are enough to feel they are able to move forward. In my experience family therapy can be a powerful process with the family leaving more connected with and appreciative of each other.